September 20, 2003

Bikini Story Unravels

So, a newspaper catches a reporter plagiarizing about bikinis, tells readers she Googled the story off the Net, checks out her previous pieces, finds more suspect reporting, pays her off to leave and then tells readers nothing more about what happened.

That's wrong. But that, according to Milwaukee Magazine, is what happened this summer at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

I'm not going to recount the details. The magazine's got them all, including examples of cribbed paragraphs like this one from Absolute-Bikini.com (hey, who needs Lexis-Nexis?): "As part of wartime rationing, the U.S. Government, in 1943, ordered a 10 percent reduction in the fabric used in woman's swimwear. Off went the skirt panel, and out came the bare midriff."

Instead, let's look at the "statement of principles" posted on the Journal Sentinel's Web site. Among them:

 "We will try to lead our readers to the truth."
 "We will strive to be accurate and fair.
 "We shall strive to make our paper a disseminator of facts, asserter of the truth a detector of fraud "
 "The true measurement of a newspaper is how it serves its community."

The Journal-Sentinel certainly could have more dissemination to the public, the community, about the detection of fraud and the assertion of truth in this case.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their fine book "The Elements of Journalism," address the issue of journalistic accuracy and credibility, the lack of which rates high on the list of reasons readers abandon newspapers. They state several of their own principles. Among them:

 Journalism's first obligation is to the truth.
 Its first loyalty is to its citizens.
 Its essence is a process of verification.

The Journal Sentinel failed all three points: The reporter's editors didn't challenge the lack of sourcing in the bikini story; the paper didn't disclose what happened to the reporter until contacted by Milwaukee Magazine; and management stonewalled the community about the truth.

Newspapers are losing the readership battle and this type of us vs. them behavior is much of the reason why. The road to salvation (he said, mightily) is paved with good intentions, one of which must be dialogue -with newsroom, with business partners and, especially with readers. [ Read: Service, Context, Dialogue ]

But, as the Journal Sentinel proved, it's hard to have a conversation if you don't open your mouth.

Links
 Milwaukee Magazine The Bikini Bundle

Posted by Tim Porter at September 20, 2003 05:07 PM